It's a chilly day on the set of Wipeout, located on a sprawling 20-acre ranch about 40 miles north of Los Angeles. The remote location is buzzing with activity, as a 300-person crew puts another group of contestants through Wipeout's signature obstacle course.
Reporting on the proceedings is original sidelines co-host Jill Wagner, who's back after a one-season hiatus. "I remembered why I loved this show in the first place as soon as I came back here," says Wagner. " It's wacky, it's fun, it's not too serious."
For this "Brains vs. Brawn" episode, which airs Thursday at 8/7c on ABC, a group of muscle-minded jocks are taking on a group of eggheads — and you might be surprised who has the upper hand. "Everyone who comes on this show thinks they can master the course," says executive producer Matt Kunitz. And almost on cue, a member of the "Brawn" team crashes into a pool of water. "They ended up saying it's the hardest thing they've ever done in their life."
Wagner says she witnesses the contestants' transformation throughout the day. "They come in the morning and start one way, and then it's completely different by the time they get to the end. It's humble city."
Wagner originally left the show to focus on acting (including a stint on MTV's Teen Wolf). "I got to kill some werewolves and I love my weapons. Unfortunately I don't get to do that here, but I accomplished what I wanted to do."
But Vanessa Lachey, who replaced Wagner last season, left the show after a year to focus on her new family. That opened the door for Wagner's return. "This place is like my home, and I feel like this is my family," Wagner says. "I wanted to be back on the show and the Hollywood Powers That Be made it happen. It feels like it's the first season, but I actually know how to hold the microphone and know what I'm doing.
John Henson, who hosts and handles color commentary with John Anderson, is also pleased to have his old colleague return. "We got her back, it's like the original Josie and the Pussycats, the original three are back!" he exclaims. Adds Kunitz: "Vanessa was awesome, but decided she wanted to spend time with her new baby, and as luck worked out, Jill was able to come back. The timing was perfect. Jill stepped right back in as if she was never gone."
Meanwhile, energy is also high on the Wipeout set as the show, now in its sixth season, celebrates its landmark 100th episode. "That's the goal in TV, to reach 100 episodes," Kunitz says. "What's great is we're still evolving. We study every episode like an NFL team. The wipeouts have gotten bigger and better because we're so meticulous."
Kunitz says the difference between a camera-ready wipeout and a fizzled one is simple. "A bad wipeout is when they run and fall feet first in the water," he says. "What makes a good wipeout if when they ricochet off of something. That's what makes the big balls so great. If you fall off one big ball, chances are you'll ricochet off another one."
Henson isn't tired of the "big balls" gag. "I could work with that joke for another 100 episodes, trust me," he says. As for Wipeout's enduring success, he says, "This show transcends all demographics, all ranges, all cultures. That slapstick comedy is fun for everybody."
Henson still hasn't tried the course — and has no plans to. "That's like asking Dr. Drew if he shoots heroin."